Cargo cults in the workplace

The dangers of imitation without understanding and mindset

Do you have any cargo cults operating in your business?  I have used the cargo cult concept often in the past as a teaching illustration.  However, just in the past two weeks I have had several discussions about cargo cults with clients, colleagues, and even in responding to a media query about creating an awesome culture (see

Cargo Cults in the Workplace - The Dangers of Imitation Without Understanding or Mindset - Mike Russell

The name derives from the belief that various ritualistic acts – which are actually imitations of others’ acts – will lead to a bestowing of material wealth (“cargo”).[]

The same belief leads to cargo cults in the workplace:  that performing certain acts or practices will produce the same results – “material wealth” – commonly in the form of productivity gains or cost savings – as attained elsewhere.

Imitation without understanding and appropriate mindset is dangerous.


Some examples of imitation without understanding or mindset

One operations example is the U.S. auto industry’s initial attempts at replicating Toyota’s success with lean production.  Some U.S. manufacturers tried to implement some practices – like “stop the line” – but only the isolated practices.  Needed changes in culture, surrounding processes, training, and so on were not made.  Understanding did not exist.  Mindsets were not changed.  Leaders did not understand the principles behind the practices and how the lean concepts altered existing productivity approaches, so the practices were merely dictated and then imitated. Understanding did not exist among leaders.  Leaders’ mindsets were not changed.

Results were dismal, and “lean” got an undeserved bad reputation.  Worse, the U.S. auto industry missed out on years of progress and better results.  [Side note:  A great case study is the NUMMI joint venture of Toyota and General Motors.  The joint venture achieved relatively spectacular results from what was considered the worst workforce in the U.S. auto industry.  Unfortunately, GM was unable to effectively learn and replicate fully elsewhere at the time.  Replication focused on practices, not understanding and mindset.]

A knowledge work example is “agile.”  In our workshops, we suggest that when someone says “We are agile” or “We are doing agile” that the proper response is “Great!”  followed by “What do you mean by ‘agile’?”  “Agile” is really more of a state of mind and philosophy about how to approach work.  Unfortunately, hype and other factors have made “agile” a cargo cult in many companies because the term is applied to just about anything that might resemble an agile practice.

Take, for instance, the idea of a (often daily) “standup.”

Cargo Cults in the Workplace - The Dangers of Imitation Without Understanding or Mindset - Mike Russell

A daily standup example from

I have often heard people explain that they are “agile” because they do daily standups.  Given that the standup has been introduced more or less in isolation, the situation is similar to Detroit introducing “stop the line” in isolation.  A practice was introduced without understanding or right mindset.  Meaning the results are usually dismal at best long-term, and people then begin to say that “agile” does not work.  Soon, any efforts at doing “agile,” much less becoming “agile,” are tossed out.

Which is a shame, since an “agile” mindset can help many businesses.

Imitation without understanding means many productivity and results improvements that could be made, won’t be made.  The surface application of imitated ritual will not affect the underlying core work process and productivity.  Even worse, cargo cult failures often increase disaffection and cynicism, meaning future efforts at improvements of any kind will be that much harder to achieve, if at all.

Here are some antidotes to cargo cult disease:

  1. Don’t just “cut and paste” isolated practices.  Gain understanding and change your mindset, not just your practice.
  2. Consider and try changes to the entire business “system” of strategy, systems and processes, people, and culture … not just isolated practices.

    Cargo Cults in the Workplace - The Dangers of Imitation Without Understanding or Mindset - Mike Russell
  3. Keep in mind the power of language.  The success of any intended change is surprisingly dependent on language.  (See some earlier posts on this subject, for example and  Understand, and put effort into helping others understand, key words and concepts.
  4. Silver bullets are few and far between.  Simply directing that that ideas like “agile” be implemented and expecting changes – and the related benefits – to occur overnight is unrealistic and reckless.  Count the probable cost and weigh against expected benefits.  Conduct experiments to see what changes may be needed in your setting.  Lead the way by example:  personally learning, experimenting, and adjusting.

For more reading and actions for implementing improvements, see Wrong Until Right.

By Mike Russell


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